Senegal faces becoming another failed African wannabe democracy

Senegal faces becoming another failed African wannabe democracy
Anti-government demonstrators take to the streets during a protest against Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade in the capital Dakar.

Senegal’s elections are on Sunday, but all is not right in Africa’s most stable democracy. Its President is showing autocratic tendencies, the frustrations of their fragmented opposition are spilling over into public disorder and security forces are over-reacting. Perhaps it’s time for everyone to take a deep breath and let the people decide. By SIMON ALLISON.

It’s easy to understand the Senegalese opposition’s frustration with their President Abdoulaye Wade. If I was Senegalese, I’d like to think that I’d be standing with them in Dakar’s central square, flagrantly flouting the ban on protests, demanding the rights and freedoms and democracy which Wade seems so keen to undermine (although I would probably flee at the first whiff of the teargas Dakar’s police use so liberally on protesters).

It was never meant to be this way. Once upon a time, Wade himself was the poster boy for democratic change, leading the charge against the 40-year rule of the Socialist Party of Senegal. His tactic? To use civil instability to make the country ungovernable, eventually forcing the Socialist Party leader Abdou Diouf into an election which Wade duly won on a wave of misplaced optimism.

It was a remarkable transition, largely devoid of violence, and proof to the world that Africa “can do democracy”. Except as the years have gone by since, Wade has slowly revealed his motivation was less about democracy than about power. And now that he has the power, he doesn’t want to give it up.

He hasn’t been terrible in office. As Huffington Post observed: “Since Wade became president, nearly every economic indicator has improved, including life expectancy which grew from 56 to 59 years and adult literacy jumped from 39% to 50%, according to World Bank statistics. And according to government data, the number of public hospitals went from 17 to 35, the number of doctors from 350 to 1,016 and the number of midwives from 558 to 1,032.”

But these gains were accompanied by a corresponding surge in the price of commodities like petrol, rice and bread, and corruption remains rife under his leadership. His son Karim is alleged to be one of the worst culprits, referred to in leaked diplomatic cables as “Mr 15%” referring to the size of his usual cut.

Even worse, Wade encouraged very little political development. In fact, Wade’s changes to the constitution, 15 in all, have been largely to further restrict rather than open up the political space. A good example is his attempt last year to amend electoral procedure to prevent his having to compete in a run-off election.

Run-offs are interesting political phenomena because they force the opposition to do what every opposition in the world finds most difficult – unite behind one candidate. It’s a problem Senegal’s opposition is currently facing. But fortunately for them, the scale of popular protests against Wade’s proposed amendment forced him to withdraw it.

Wade’s one positive constitutional amendment was his initiative to limit presidents to just two terms in office, a sensible precaution against dictatorship. But ironically it’s this that lies at the heart of the ferocity of the current protests in Senegal, as Wade has successfully argued in court that the provision does not apply to him. Although he has served two terms already, he says they don’t count because the constitution was only changed once he was in office, and doesn’t apply retrospectively. He should start with a blank slate, in other words, and he’s been given one, allowing him to run in the presidential elections on Sunday.

The formal opposition, all the various bits of it, are livid. They feel betrayed by the man who once fought for democracy and is now showing every sign of turning into a typical African president-for-life: venal, corrupt and power-crazed. They’re worried about Senegal turning from one of the most promising countries in Africa to just another personal fiefdom of an ageing strongman. And they’re also worried about their own future.

Suddenly, the various career politicians at the head of the movement against Wade, many of them former apparatchiks in his administration, feel the prospect of gaining power is becoming more and more remote by the day. All these factors have combined in spurring the protests, which, although not big enough to spark any kind of Arab Spring-style rebellion, are certainly a challenge to Wade’s continuing rule.

But the biggest challenge will come on Sunday, when Senegal goes to the polls. Senegal prides itself on being Africa’s most stable democracy, and this is its big test. The election is being monitored by the African Union, the European Union, and the Economic Community for West African States so there shouldn’t be too much room for electoral fraud on a scale big enough to change the result. So who will Senegal choose?

Most analysts agree that Wade would struggle to win in a run-off, and needs to get more than 50% in the first round to avoid it. Hence his frenetic campaigning; his schedule is impressive for a man of 85. But he’s not the only one who has been busy.

When not protesting, the broad opposition coalition movement M23 (the M for ‘Mouvement’, the 23 the number of groups involved) have been desperately trying to get voters to register on the theory that the more people that vote, the less likely it is Wade will win outright. Unfortunately, while M23 can agree on the opposition’s broad goal of unseating Wade, they haven’t been able to agree on a unity candidate who might do just that, meaning there are at least four serious opposition candidates splitting the vote between them. The best any of them can hope for is to beat the other opposition candidates and challenge Wade in a run-off.

But the big message the opposition needs to hear in the run-up to these elections is, as unsavoury as it might appear sometimes, this is democracy in action. The Senegalese people will have the opportunity to reject Wade, using the ballot box. They will also have the power to elect him, and if they do then it is because most of them agree with Wade’s policies and his self-interested interpretation of the constitution. Although it’s wobbling, Senegal is still one of Africa’s strongest democracies; both the ruling party and the opposition need to let it remain that way. DM

Read more:

  • Chances of main opposition candidates in Senegal’s presidential election on My Joy Online.
  • Will Senegal’s ballot be transparent? in the Africa Report.
  • Senegal’s opposition vents its frustration but can’t stop the Wade juggernaut on Daily Maverick

Photo: Anti-government demonstrators take to the streets during a protest against Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade. REUTERS/Joe Penney.


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